Dennis Lehane knows how to thrill. The best-selling author brings his trademark twists and turns to Since We Fell, his 14th and latest novel—but craftsman that he is, he never lets readers lose sight of his characters. Since We Fell tells a story that is chilling, moving and absolutely hair-raising. (Read The Sparrow, Playboy’s exclusive excerpt of Since We Fell), out today from HarperCollins.)
The story takes place in and around Boston—the location of many classic Lehane tales and, indeed, where the author grew up. As we spoke over the phone, I found Lehane approachable, formidable and decidedly confident, and also slightly guarded. That’s not unusual for someone frequently in the spotlight, but perhaps it might be a residual effect of growing up on the mean streets of Dorchester. Back then, the Boston neighborhood had the country’s highest murder rate. The experience clearly toughened him. More than that, it made him acutely aware of his environment and the people in it—ever watchful for telling insights, hostile intentions and what might be waiting around the bend. This awareness is evident in his writing. Lehane’s observations are keen and perceptive, his characters full and specific. Take, for example, Rachel Childs, the main character of Since We Fell. Her journey moves her from successful journalist to housebound agoraphobe to—well, we won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Rachel experiences astounding and compelling character growth.
Lehane exuded a tense energy over the phone. He was patient and answered my questions thoughtfully, and I sensed that he was juggling a lot of balls inside his head. Perhaps it’s because he works so hard. Lehane’s résumé makes you want to go home and do something productive. To start with, there’s his string of best-sellers, including Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Drop, World Gone By and Shutter Island, among others. Lehane has also found time to produce and adapt his books for the big screen and to write for TV shows such as Boardwalk Empire and The Wire. Given his success, I was prepared to dislike him—but that lasted about eight seconds. He’s a regular guy, just smarter and more talented than you.
While you were struggling to be an author, you had a number of jobs, including parking cars. What did you think of yourself back then? Did you think you were a regular guy with regular ambitions, or did you see yourself as somehow special?
I don’t think I thought of myself as special. I thought of myself as an ordinary person with a slightly extraordinary ambition. What I wanted to do seemed a little bit…bizarre. I remember one thing very strongly: Until the moment that I actually saw my first book in a bookstore window, I was absolutely positive that I would never be published.
You’re an acknowledged master of twists and turns but at the same time, what happens to the characters is a consequence of their own subjective reality. They act on what they believe to be true. In other words, they drive the plot instead of the other way around. Is that a fair thing to say?
Oh yeah. I think that’s fair. Most strong narrative comes out of the main characters’ internal journeys. The internal journey is the story, and the external journey is the plot. The plot, I would say, is really just the car, and the story is the entire journey.
Rachel is deeply scarred by her experiences in Haiti, where she has to make a terrible decision. What was your thinking in putting her under extreme pressure?
Drama is found in extreme pressure; it’s the Greek idea of in extremis. And I have a fascination with what somebody once termed the irreconcilable dilemma: If you do the right thing, a bad thing happens, and if you do the wrong thing, a good thing can happen. That sense of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” which I think is at the core of a lot of adult decisions. It’s very rare that things in this world are black and white.
Rachel has a period of romantic bliss marred by, among other things, her belief that someone with her problems couldn’t possibly be lovable. Do you think that relationships deteriorate more from forces within, or forces without?
That’s a lot to bite off! I don’t know—I think it depends upon the relationship. I do believe the old line that a relationship can survive anything but contempt.
The idea of transience recurs in Since We Fell. People and relationships appear, stay awhile and then they’re gone. In one passage, you write about disassembling ourselves when we don’t connect and assembling ourselves as something else. Could you talk a little about transience?
You know, in some ways it’s a constant in life. I don’t think there’s too much sense of solid ground as you go through this world. In so many ways, the world is moving so much faster; everything is just changing at a blistering pace, and I think that there’s an essential conflict at the heart of any intimate relationship: You ultimately can never truly 100% know the other person. I mean, it’s hard enough for people to know themselves. There’s always this sense of, Who are you in there? Who’s behind those eyes? I think that’s always there.
To me, drama is about people being revealed in extreme circumstances. That’s the type of drama I write. I’m of the pressure-cooker school.
Related to that is a broader notion of change. Many things you write about—people, neighborhoods, cities, culture in general—always seem to be in process, somehow in the midst of becoming something else, for better or worse. Rachel has to continuously invent new versions of herself to survive. In a less dramatic way, are you suggesting we all have to change before circumstances do it for us?
I certainly think that change—often unwelcome change—is part of the package of living. Because of her affliction, Rachel begins the second part of the book believing that she can stay safely ensconced in an apartment and not engage the world. She’s an agoraphobic. The book—and maybe some players in the background who we don’t know yet—is saying no, that’s not going to happen. You’re going to get out in that world, whether you like it or not. And boy, does she get out in the world. That’s the oldest trope in drama. Sort of like if you know Brody’s afraid of the water in Jaws, you know exactly how that movie’s going to end. If you know Jimmy Stewart’s afraid of heights in Vertigo, you know how that movie’s got to end. Rachel’s afraid of the outdoors, so the entire book—certainly the last two thirds—is a thrusting of her out of the nest.
As the story unfolds, Rachel’s entire reality is challenged. Her beliefs, her code of ethics, her relationships, her identity—all of that is turned inside and out and has to be reworked and rediscovered—and it seemed to me it was like a compressed, supercharged version of life. Is that what you intended?
I don’t know about intended, but I do go back to this idea of extremis, or what Cormac McCarthy called “fiction of mortal event.” To me drama is about people being revealed in extreme circumstances. That’s the type of drama I write; there are people who do a wonderful job writing drama in which everything turns on a small moment. Books like Remains of the Day or Charming Billy come to mind. But I’m of the pressure-cooker school—that’s what interests me in drama. So this is just “throw her to the wolves and see what happens.” From the moment she sees something that doesn’t make any sense to her onward, her life is never the same.
In the chapter called The Sparrow, Rachel is at a low point. She’s unemployed and isolated, crippled by her phobia. Then she meets Brian, and that relationship will propel her forward toward confronting her fears. Is that how we get better—through our relationships?
Or worse. [laughs] It really depends. In the bad type of relationship, when two people are alike in the worst ways, as opposed to the best ways, that can become very co-dependent and very destructive. But in this circumstance, yes—Rachel has met a guy who certainly seems to be supportive, empathic, patient, nonjudgmental—I mean he’s the whole package. And because this is my book, and my world, of course that’s the person who is going to turn out to maybe not be what he seems. He’s such a good person that it should be an alarm bell.
Joe Ide is of Japanese American descent. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles in a neighborhood rife with crime, gangs and violence. His favorite books were the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. By the time Ide was 12 years old, he’d read all 56 stories and four novels multiple times. Joe felt a kinship with the iconic character: Both were misfits and neither were tough guys, but Sherlock could defeat his enemies and control his world with his intelligence alone—a powerful idea to a small kid in a dangerous neighborhood. It was Ide’s early experiences and his love of Sherlock that served as groundwork for his first novel, IQ.